Don’t Ruin the Recall: Part 3 and a True Story That’s Tough to Take

First off, I’d like to sincerely thank everyone who has been joining in the training discussions via Facebook and Email.  I really appreciate each and every one of you who share your feedback.  And I love hearing about your training experiences with your own dogs.  It’s awesome to hear about the positive results you are getting as well as the common challenges that we all face in raising our beloved dogs.  (Dog trainers are not exempt from these challenges, trust me.)

For Part 3 today I want to give you a summary of everything I’ve taught in the past two days of posts.  This is the list of things you must know if you are going to have a dog who comes when called. So, drumroll, please… … Here are the indispensable, comprehensible, well-intentional…

Rules for Recalls

1. Never call your dog to come and then have it result in something she won’t like.
2. If you must expose your dog to something she won’t like – do NOT use any kind of recall cue before the unwanted event.  Just go get her instead.  Or do something fun in between!
3. During the early training phase when you are still teaching a recall, do NOT use your recall cue word UNLESS you are prepared to reward generously.
4. Do NOT use your recall word in situations where you know your dog will fail.  In other words, don’t start practicing this while your dog is in the middle of a euphoric chase with another dog or a squirrel.  You need to gradually work your way up to that level of distraction.  (If your dog hears the cue word over and over, all the while ignoring it, you will systematically desensitize her to the very word you are working hard to train.)
5. Use a SLACK long line at first when training so that if your dog ignores you, she CANNOT learn that ignoring you is more fun than listening to you.  (Example: You call your dog.  Your dog ignores you and chases a squirrel instead.  Outcome of ignoring is highly rewarding to her.  That’s not good for training.)  This rule is optional depending on your dog.  It’s very smart to adhere to it if you think there’s a chance you’ll get ignored and lose control of the situation.
6. Reward all recalls with FUN. This could be walks, rubs, toys, play, chase, treats, more freedom, etc – be creative!  This is especially important in early training.  Once your dog KNOWS that recalls are wonderful, the association with them will be so positive that running to you on cue will be one of her absolute favorite things to do.

"You called? I'm back!"

Now – sigh – a story about a recall that made my stomach turn.

It was just me, in shorts and a tee with a leash and a fluffy white Coton de Tulear at the end of it.  He was a pup named Grayson that had been a client of mine for over a year and his owner trusted me to take him out on my own.  We were doing a walk-and-train private lesson in Central Park.  It was the middle of a hot summer day, middle of the week, when most people are at work.  Nonetheless, the famous NYC park was living up to its billing, the paths and field abuzz with many characters.  From the joggers and disc tossers to the moms and their toddlers to the dog walkers and who-knows-what-nutters, if people-watching was your thing, this was the place to be.

Across the field, a guy in a wheelchair caught my eye because he had a Border Collie alongside him.  You don’t see many BCs in NYC.  The striking black-and-white coat stood out beautifully against the green grass and trees.  I watched them for a moment, nothing particularly interesting about them, so my eyes wandered away and back to Grayson at the end of my leash.  I put Grayson in a down-stay and was walking away from him, letting my long line drop on the ground when suddenly I heard firecrackers go off nearby.  BAM-BAM!  BAMMITTY-BAMMITTY-BAM!!!  I quickly reeled in the long line and brought Grayson beside me.  As I was doing that I saw something that made my mouth drop and my adrenaline spike.  “Oh, no,” I said aloud.

On a path across the field I could see that the firecrackers sent that Border Collie into a panic.  Her owner in the wheelchair had been holding her leash but the fear caused her to dart out in front of him so forcefully that the leash was yanked right out of his hand.  She was now a mad dash of black-and-white streaks  running frantically down the path and away from her owner in his chair.  The guy was pretty fast racing after her but he was no match for his dog.  She was heading my way when I noticed that several other people were tuned into the event and were thinking the same thing I was, “Help this poor man and GRAB THAT DOG.”

It quickly became clear, though, that this Border Collie had a serious fear of strangers.  Anyone who reached out to her only caused her to dart away in another direction.  I reached in my pocket and grabbed the cheese I had on me as a training reward.  I was thinking if she came close enough I would throw a bunch of cheese on the ground in her direction and make a dive for that leash that was trailing behind her.  But she never made it close enough to me.  All of her side-to-side dashing away from strangers gave her owner enough time to get within shouting distance of her.  And shouting he was.  I heard him yelling at her to come to him and I could see her ears pin back with fear when she heard that voice.  “Uh oh,”  I thought.  “He’s not the one we should all be pitying.”

The poor dog was now torn between fear of running away and fear of returning to her owner.  As the wheelchair crept closer and closer, she would trot further to maintain the distance, but then she would stop and cower whenever her owner would yell.   “Get over here, GET OVER HERE!”  I could hear him seething and his scowl was visible even from 50 yards away.  I frowned.  The situation was all too predictable at this point. Sadly, I watched it unfold just the way I knew it would.  The dog gradually stopped trotting further away and the wheelchair slowly closed the distance between them.  Once he got close enough, the yelling owner was able to freeze his dog in place by intimidating her with his anger.  Then, when he finally caught up to her he really let her have it.  He grabbed the leash and yanked it hard several times, “Don’t you EVER do that AGAIN!” he bellowed through clenched teeth.  The poor dog had her head hung so low I wanted to cry.

“You should’ve just kept running girl,” I thought.  I was sick to my stomach.  There was a strange mixture of emotions churning there: anger, sadness, disappointment, and shock – to think I initially felt bad for the man.  It took me several minutes of pacing and a few deep breaths to make the difficult decision NOT to intervene.  I wanted to be a protector for the dog and a teacher to the man.  There was a strong part of me that badly wanted to go over and have a talk with him.  To tell him it was plainly obvious why his dog would not come back to him.  That I knew exactly why he had to endure the embarrassment of chasing her around Central Park in front of dozens of shocked onlookers.  To tell him that she was scared, not disobedient.  To explain that he only made it worse for next time.  To tell him it was quite possible his dog hated him as much as she loved him.

But I decided this was not my place. Not here, not now.  The man and his dog were completely stressed out. I didn’t think he’d be open to any sort of listening or further embarrassment.  I figured the last thing he wanted was for some strange dog trainer to come over and start teaching him about a personal interaction he just had with his own dog, who he had to chase down from a wheelchair in public.  I let it be.

For the rest of the walk with Grayson, and for the rest of the day, I kept thinking back on whether I should have said something to that man.  Maybe I could have changed the way he interacted with his dog in the future.  Maybe I could have just given him my card and said “Let’s talk at a later time.”

I do believe that most people, even those who scold too much  – and at the wrong times – are more clueless than malicious when it comes to their dogs.  This guy was certainly clueless, to say the least.  If you were in the same situation, would you have gone up to him afterwards?  If so, what would you have said?

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2 Responses to “Don’t Ruin the Recall: Part 3 and a True Story That’s Tough to Take”

  1. Janice Sauer Says:

    A couple of years ago I was in Walmart when a man in a motorized wheelchair with his German Shepard was there. I had seen them before and while the dog didn’t have a helper vest I knew Walmnart let him bring the dog in. This time the man was in the Subway waiting for food and he kept jerking the dog. I was in a line checking out later when he had his food and the dog was sitting there by him. A little boy walked by and the dog stood up to look at the child. The man grabbed the dog by his nose and twisted it both ways. The dog howled in pain. There were several large men watching and I hoped they would say something but no one did. By the time I checked out I was shaking but decided it wasn’t my place to correct him and hoping someone would. It bothered me for days and still does.. I went there every night after work and watched for him and a few days later saw the man & the dog. I hurried after him and told him what beautiful dog he had and when he stopped I told him I had seen him mistreat the dog and he shouldn’t treat any friend like that. I didn’t know who to report him to but asked him to treat his friend with respect. I haven’t seen him there since but it still bothers me as I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have his name to report him and didn’t know where to look for help after the event.

  2. realdealdave Says:

    Wow. Janice, thanks for sharing that story. You had that same upsetting feeling that I did. Perhaps you did change this man’s outlook in some way? It’s not an easy thing to do, but you never know.

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